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Want your artist friend to gift you their work? Don\’t Forget To Consider this

Santanu Borah tells you why in order to possess something beautiful you have to give something practical in return


Since I paint often and pretend as best as I can that I am good at it, I understand some of the “interesting” problems that artists face. Without using the jargons that art writers are often guilty of, I would like to dwell on these issues, so that even a lay person is able to understand what goes on in the practical mental landscape of an artist trying to make a living. This is what I have personally experienced, but I am sure I am not alone.

I have often heard questions or statements like, “So, you paint. Nice hobby” or “It’s just painting. Give me a gift, na. You can always make more”. I understand why some folks say this. So, here are 10 practical points to help them understand the bigger picture:

  1. I started painting regularly when I was in the sixth or seventh standard. Most paintings were failures. If you take the cost of paper, colours, brushes, etc., my dad got poorer because of it. He was just a mid-level government servant in a small town called Tezpur in Assam. People in general make lesser incomes there than in metropolises.
  2. When I started painting professionally, I needed better ‘equipment’. A book of good quality 300 gsm acid-free paper of a smaller size (there are only about 10-20 sheets) costs anything between 800-3,500 bucks, at the least. You can up the ante and even get paper that cost upwards of 10,000 rupees. But I can’t always afford top quality paper like Arches, which is frightfully expensive if your bank balance looks like mine. If you add these costs and multiply it by say two and a half decades of painting, it is quite a fortune. If you add professional brushes, colours, rollers etc., you could add a couple of lakhs at least to the overall costs.
  3. Quality canvas rolls costs anything between 5k and 8k at the least. Cheaper options are there but they are rubbish. I always paint over pictures I don’t like to save on costs.
  4. Everyone knows frames are expensive. I have to shell out at least Rs 450 for a small painting frame at Kolse Galli in Pune. Bigger the work, costlier the frame. Canvas stretcher frames are also at least a couple of thousands for, say, 4 feet height. Artisan quality frames are almost prohibitively expensive. It’s good to know carpentry but unfortunately, I don’t.
  5. Professional colours are expensive. A set of Windsor Newton colour is for Rs 4,000 at the lower end. Let’s not even talk about Daniel Smith paints. Even Indian makes like Camel are not exactly cheap and their quality isn’t the best. A regular oil stick is anywhere between Rs 500 to 1,200. I don’t use cheap stuff because, like everyone, I am quality conscious. A 120 ml tube of Camel oil colour is for Rs 210 on Amazon. As for top range imported colours, you might want to call on a sugar daddy or mommy for the cash. Since most artists do not have sugar anything, they have to do a day job, especially if you are against the idea of doing “commercially viable” work or repeating your own work that sells. That’s bad for your growth as an artist.
  6. I have spent many nights awake, moving from one failed work to another till I got a few right. To make that 15-minute watercolour sketch, it took me a decade or more. As that Zen story goes, every small sketch technically took at least 10 years and 15 minutes to make.
  7. Complex works take weeks or months. So, you can’t party or socialise much. Time has to be managed well. You have to be in your work space. Many artists lose a lot doing this, both tangible and intangible. It can also affect relationships. Often a divorce or a break-up hangs like the sword of Damocles over your head, even as you rush to finish work and give time to your significant other. Time spent painting alone is not quality time spent with your loved ones. There is a price to pay for passion. And as we know, not all good deeds go unpunished.
  8. If you are not able to sell, you have to suffer more.
  9. You need an apartment where you can store all your stuff, like papers, canvasses, half-done works, paints, brushes, cans, ladders and other, often very heavy, machinery (and now and then a broken heart). That’s rent staring at you in a rather mocking fashion. Only a small number of artists have big homes of their own.
  10. Finally, only a miniscule percentage of artists actually become successful financially. Most work all their lives in their obscure corner.

I hope these practical pointers help everyone understand the logistics of being an artist better. And just a small request: please buy art from young or emerging artists. You never know but you could be sitting on a goldmine. Or just do it as charity if you must – you will only add to our cultural capital. In short, please pay for art. Telling artists your home wall will give them “exposure” does not really pay the bills. Artists will gift you work only when they are able to. Yes, there is no such thing as a free lunch.